Rephsearch is a new weekly post detailing one or two or possibly three pieces of research with a Williams professor, student, or alumni author. The post will try to summarize the article in layperson’s terms and, occasionally, include insights from the author. This is our first Rephsearch. Suggestions welcome!


The idea for Rephsearch came from my desire to avoid revising a paper for a third time because one of the peer reviewers–a sociologist–felt that we were being overly dramatic by spending more than “a couple sentences on the difference” between popularity and network structure. I grew frustrated–part of the point of our article was to show how that mistake was endemic to sociology and the flaws it led to in our thinking. I was annoyed.

Oops, this is supposed to be for non-social scientists…let’s back up…below the break

Adolescence in our society, is the age in which individuals move from being family oriented to being peer oriented in terms of culture, attitudes, and actions. As such, adolescent friendship networks are a growing field of interest in the social sciences. Remembering that many of us academics were (are? always will be?) nerds and geeks and dweebs (see this handy explanation), many academics outside of psychology assumed that more friends = popular. That crowd of people we always wanted to party with sure seemed big from the outside, no?

Of course, that was quite the assumption and psychologists have questioned it and thoroughly debunked it. Popularity comes not from having lots and lots of friends, but from having “cool friends” and doing cool things. It’s status, not size. I’d say quality, not quantity–but looking back, were those “popular” friendships of better quality? Ehh…Anyway, having lots of friends is a different form of “popularity,” better termed “likeability.” With me so far?

Anyway, one of the more recent and interesting in-depth studies of this better understanding of popularity was done by an eph! Marlene Sandstrom is co-author of “Is Being Popular a Risky Proposition?”, and I hope that link works for people. The article uses a longitudinal sample of students from one city (other work I’ve seen with larger samples but less detailed methods seem to concur) and find–to vastly oversimplify–that popularity is predictive of risk behaviors like sexual activity and alcohol use. Further, changes in popularity level (so someone who went from blah to hip) was also predictive of risk behaviors.

So eph parents, let the word ring out (well, not exactly, but this is nice to know): having non-popular kids is safer and they’ll be more likeable. It’s win win!

Professor Sandstrom was also kind enough to answer two questions when posed via email:
2) What got you interested? I have always been interested in the paradox of the “popular but not particularly likable” individual. How can someone who is uniformly disliked/distrusted still manage to acquire such power, prestige, influence, and visibility in the peer group. The whole notion of popularity really taps into fundamentally interesting questions about how people and groups relate to each other.

3) What do you want to see next in the field? I would like to see more longitudinal work done, following popular children beyond high school and into emerging adulthood. My colleague and I have begun to do this work….a paper looking at adjustment outcomes of popular teens in the 3 years post high school will be published in the Merrill-Palmer Quarterly this year. But what happens to popular teens in their thirties, forties, and beyond. Does popularity in childhood predict outcomes like marital satisfaction, parenting style, or even social status of offspring? These are interesting question that have yet to be asked!

Tune in next week for the next Rephsearch, in more condensed form. This post doesn’t need to be popular, but I hope it was likeable!

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